How referral partner programs outperform resellers

The success of partner programs in B2B companies is highly variable. Many companies try various approaches, but what starts as a promising opportunity, often ends in unmet expectations from both companies in the partnership.

After all, the idea of extending lead generation reach and sales coverage without adding headcount is appealing. And although partnering is a great model in concept, the execution is very difficult. The reality is that you are constantly trying to train and onboard Partners in order to make sure that they understand the differentiated messaging and sales techniques necessary to effectively sell your product. In addition, servicing the relationship post sale introduces an entirely different set of challenges such as how to nurture customer relationships to deliver a continued revenue stream.

Putting it all together is  an extremely big task and one that takes a significant amount of resources to achieve success. But thanks to new referral marketing technology entering the market, we are starting to see a shift in partner strategy. Specifically, partnerships based on referrals are starting to show incredible success and are challenging the traditional mindset of resale oriented partnering.

Resale = high investment with uncertain return

With reseller partnerships you are faced with the development of detailed contracts that cover all aspects of a complex relationship. But, that’s just the beginning. Once the partnership execution begins, you’re faced with the task of onboarding and training the Partner’s marketing and sales teams and the difficult task of maintaining mind-share as other priorities of the Partner inevitably surface.

Success requires the same time and budget as direct selling efforts, but often with worse results. Why? Because Reseller Partners don’t see your product as the primary way to achieve quota. They aren’t looking for opportunities for your product. Instead, your product is simply an afterthought until an obvious need is exposed by their Customer.

Also, consider the end Customer‘s perspective. Do they have to go through the Partner as a middleman to get support? Are they getting the same care and nurturing as your direct-sale Customers? When the time comes, will they be an Advocate for your business and provide the word-of-mouth recommendations that are so vital to the success of your business? The answer is probably not.

Referral partner programs have challenges too

Referral partnerships have existed for centuries. With this model, instead of a full reseller arrangement, you use Partners primarily as a way to extend lead generation. As Partners come across situations where a need for your product is identified, they refer the lead to you. Your team then engages in the relationship, takes the driver seat on the sales process and ultimately, makes the sale. This fixes a few key issues with the reseller model. You now have a much simpler contract (if any) and you don’t need to deeply train the Partner on how to sell your product or service

However, a few problems remain with referral partner programs and a few new ones arise as a result.

First, you still need to have a way to stay top of mind with your Partners. You also need to make sure you have a simple way to track, incentivize and manage this relationship. For example, how does the Partner stay informed of the status of the referral so they can help the opportunity progress?

And, relative to incentives, will you pay the Partner per lead or when a sale closes? If it is only when a sale closes, how do you trigger the event so that you can fulfill the reward and ensure the partner get’s compensated quickly and correctly?

The reality is that much of this is done manually and that limits the output of a Referral Partner.  While Referral Partners can produce great in-market leads they are difficult to scale.

Because both models have strengths and weaknesses, I see companies trying to do a bit of everything, with limited success.

The rise of referral partner programs managed at scale

The advent of software to manage referrals has tipped the scale strongly in favor of referral partnerships. With the ever increasing pressure to generate ROI from your partnership efforts, my advice is to get there and get there fast.

Here is my take on how automated referral partner programs can benefit all parties involved while being a consistent generator of high quality leads.

Benefits of automated referral partner programs to your company

  1. Quality leads: This one is pretty obvious. You already know that referrals from Partners are great leads, but with referral marketing software you get a consistent flow at a larger scale than ever before. In fact in a recent benchmark study 31% of referral leads from partners made a purchase. This number increased to 41% when sales was involved in the referral process.

referral partners, referral marketing, what are referral partners conversion rate?

 2. Shorter sales cycles: It’s a proven fact, referral deals move faster through the pipeline. It isn’t just that they are higher quality. Your sales team also has access to the Partner who made the referral so they can prequalify the opportunity and enlist their help in making the sale.

Improved customer experience: From first contact with your product through the entire customer journey, you are now in the driver’s seat to achieve customer success. This makes for a great customer experience, but it also means that your customers can be leveraged later to give you positive mentions in social media and refer your product to their peers. And that means more high quality leads.

4. Cost savings: With automation comes significant cost savings. In this model, you can scale the number of Referral Partners without adding headcount because everything from operational management, to nurturing communications, through to reward fulfillment is automated. Additionally, you no longer have the resource-intensive training nor the co-marketing costs from the Reseller Partner model.

5. Better data: With all of your referral partner programs activity managed with referral marketing software and integration into your sales CRM (e.g Salesforce), it is easy to see direct ROI from Referral Partners and prove the incredible value of the channel.

Benefits of automated referral partner programs to your Partners

  1. Added revenue/income: Depending upon whether you structure your program to reward the partner entity, the Partner Advocates (typically Sales Reps) or both, the outcome is the same. Your referral program provides an easy way to get rewarded for relationships they already have.
  2. No hassle: With nurture emails and a personal web page, Partners can see their referral activity and reward status. The result is that the Partner feels informed and views the relationship with your company as low friction. And when Partners have confidence in your system, they’ll refer more.
  3. Happy customers: Partners are able to easily extend their offering to your product or service to provide solutions that meet the Customer’s needs. And referral leads are the highest quality, so Partners know they will receive the proper attention and care during the buying process.

Benefits of automated referral partner programs to your sales team

  1. Fast leads: No one is more appreciative than Sales of referral leads. They can skip the emailing and calling to try to get a prospect. The Partner has all the information needed to get the opportunity generated and can even help Sales drive it through the pipe.
  2. No new systems: With all of the referral data in the sales CRM, Sales doesn’t have to learn a new system. With fast access to referral lead and Partner Advocate information in the system they use every day, they are more productive.
  3. Easy Partner management: What Sales doesn’t want is to have to track which Partner referred whom and fight for them to get paid. With all of this done for them, they can focus on what you want them to – selling!

Benefits of automated referral partner programs to your Customers

  1. Need resolved quickly: When a need is identified by the Partner, it can be resolved quickly with your product or solution without the Customer having to go through the hassle of blindly scouring the internet for the right product to buy. This saves them time and hassle.
  2. Work with a trusted advisor: Another reason referral leads move quickly through the pipeline is that the interest started with a recommendation from a trusted source (the Partner). Customers who get a recommendation from a trusted source are much more likely to buy.
  3. Great support: Since the entire customer relationship is managed by you, referred Customers get the same great support that you provide all of your Customers.

Turn your partner relationships into revenue

Because of the benefits to all parties, savvy Channel Managers are making a transition away from Resellers to referral partner programs managed with  software specifically made to handle these kinds of relationships. With a low cost automated system you can maintain or reduce  the cost of your channel team while simultaneously growing the direct revenue coming from the channel.

Discover how powerful referral marketing software could be for you with the ROI calculator (Warning: May cause your referral partner program to drive revenue at an extreme speed).

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Why customer advocacy means the end of reseller partners

Customer advocacy is the practice of leveraging your customers to endorse you and with the right tools it has become a very powerful source of lead generation for businesses. These endorsements can come in many different forms ranging from product reviews on third party sites, to sales references, to referring your product to someone in their network. Sales and marketing have been begging customers for these things for years but they haven’t been able to turn it into a significant lead generation resource.

Now there is software available that allows you to get customers advocating at scale, software for getting content and software that drives referrals and they are working. SiriusDecisions recently highlighted some customer advocacy programs that are impacting revenue in this presentation. It isn’t just influenced revenue. ADP stated that customer advocacy via referrals is their top source of leads that turn into revenue.

But with the onset of customer advocacy adoption and companies realizing the value of it, it’s  highlighting a big problem with reseller partnerships. Specifically, with reseller partnerships you get revenue, but don’t have any relationship with the end users of your product. They aren’t your customers, they are the Customers of your reseller.

These customers may be some of the best and happiest users of your product, but they have no relationship with you so they can’t be leveraged for customer advocacy. If you don’t own the relationship, you can’t control it.

This is one of the reasons why companies are moving away from reseller partners and transitioning toward Referral Partners.

How to leverage referral partnerships with customer advocacy

Referral partnerships benefit both the partner and brand/customer marketer. With referral partnerships you can still leverage the value of your partner network, while keeping the customer relationship direct. The way this works is that your partners act as a trusted adviser to your target buyer. They can recommend your product to them and can get compensated for that recommendation if they end up buying your product. This generates a high quality lead in your sales pipeline that gets sold by your sales team.

And now there is software that can manage the complexity of that relationship from delivering the referral experience and tracking that referral, rewarding and fulfillment process with variations as needed by partner. Relative to resellers, this drives incredible value for Partner Marketers, Sales, your Partners and your Buyers.

Partner marketers can drive incredible value from your partner network while making your brand and customer marketers BFFs. By transitioning to referral partnerships, you are extending their pool of potential advocates that can take actions to make referrals and endorsements. And this of course, drives more revenue.

As customer advocacy becomes a more common and expected part of the lead generation and buying experience, I predict that companies will find it difficult to justify their investment in reseller partnerships.

Justify your investment in customer advocacy by trying out the ROI calculator to discover the ROI you can achieve with a referral program.

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The best sales channel you’re probably not using

I’ve been in technology for nearly 30 years and I’ve watched many tech businesses attempt to grow their businesses “through the channel”. This is code for various forms of business partnerships or distribution models that drive incremental revenue.  These partnerships come in many shapes and sizes and include industry designations such as resellers, agents, integrators, etc.

 Back in the day…

Whether the nature of the partnership is “sell with” or “sell through” you usually consider the trade-off between investment in the channel partner, and the potential lift to sales. The investment comes in the form of training, enablement materials, support personnel, commissions etc. and usually mirrors the amount of the sales process you are expecting the partner to carry. The expected payoff is incremental revenue you would not have received through your direct or ecommerce channels.

 Too complicated

Many of these traditional partner efforts fail to live up to expectations. Without early success, execution quickly wanes and eventually the partnership flames out and the investment is written off.  There are a host of reasons why partnerships can be challenging, but one that I often witness is that channels partners can rarely execute the sales process as well as the primary supplier. If they don’t have immediate success, they lose focus and move on to where they can make money faster and easier.

 Watch out for an upset (aka, don’t get Uber-ed!)

In the same way that technology has disrupted markets (think Uber, Lyft, AirBNB), etc.) technology is poised to disrupt the nature of these traditional channel partnership models. And, just like the aforementioned disruptor companies, cloud/SaaS, and mobile technology will provide the crucial linchpin that drives obsolescence of these traditional channel models.

The concept is a simple and elegant, but also powerful and scalable– leverage technology to quickly and inexpensively ramp channel relationships that can drive new customer acquisition and revenue generation. The referral of an opportunity that results in a closed sale becomes the unit of exchange in this new channel ecosystem. It’s pretty much a given that referrals are the highest quality leads with higher close rates than traditional lead methods.

Let’s look at what we really want out of our channel partners and how technology enables could enable a truly disruptive new channel model:

Low friction: Both suppliers and partners want easy and simple. Complex partner models decrease the odds of success.  Today, mobile and social technologies combined with the networked nature of relationships can allow you to make almost anyone a partner that helps you identify and influence qualified buyers.

Speed: The more extended partner network you can build, the better opportunity you have to quickly identify in market buyers and beat your competition to the sale.

Scales easily and effectively: SaaS software can provide a platform for a 100% closed loop process that fully automates tracking, attribution, compensation and communications to the parties in real time.

 

Are there leading edge companies doing this already? You bet!

In the B2C world, the aforementioned Uber and Lyft utilize this method to drive a fast, frictionless growth in a way that is authentic to their brands. Immediately after a ride on Lyft, I am prompted to post a tweet to my network embedded with a referral link. I get my reward if they use my referral. A great example of levering customers as a channel.

In B2B, fast growing SaaS players like RingCentral and Citrix GoToMeeting are using referrals as growth channels with both partners and influencers. Citrix’s Senior Manager, Randy Fahrbach recently wrote a piece on Referrals as a Service (RaaS) for his interesting take on this channel trend.

Who are your potential new channel partners? It can be anyone! Open your thinking to any groups, companies, communities or professionals that may have experience with your product or are in a position to influence your buyers. As an example, if you target small businesses, accountants can be very influential in the certain buying decisions that an SMB makes.

What about companies that sell an adjacent product or service to yours? These companies may be interested in becoming your partner. With little additional work or distraction from their core business, they get to create an additional revenue stream from the relationships they already have today. You can also use the same model for companies that may already be a partner, but you need a lower cost, lower friction way to make the relationship productive and profitable.

Once you are freed from the cost and effort of ramping a traditional partner relationship, you’ll be able to brainstorm many new potential partnership opportunities. Think about your end buyer and what natural partner synergies might exist if you could enable them to refer your product cheaply and easily.  With a simple referral execution, you can engage this channel and make it very easy for them to identify leads and be rewarded for doing so.

 If you go down this new channel partner path, here is what you need to be successful:

  1.      Make it easy for them to partner with you
  2.      Make it easy to refer — direct and indirect
  3.      Clearly delineate rewards with prompt fulfillment
  4.      Provide transparency so the partner is kept up to date on progress
  5.      Reinforce positive behaviors

What is brand advocacy?